The Boston Globe
A Florida 'runoff
Boston Globe, 4/15/2001
Democracy is imperfect,
as last fall's presidential election demonstrated. Divining the will
of the body politic can be an inexact science, even a messy
Florida recount fiasco shook many Americans' confidence in our
electoral system. But it has also propelled efforts to overhaul and
fine-tune the ''winner-take-all'' tradition in US
At least five states
are considering proposals to establish so-called ''instant runoff
elections,'' also known as ''preferential voting.'' Under this
system, voters rank the candidates in multiple-candidate fields by
preference, rather than voting for just one person. When no
candidate receives more than 50 percent in the first tally, the
secondary preferences are counted to determine the
This election method,
proponents argue vigorously, provides a way to reflect majority
sentiment, even in a 10-candidate race.
Instant runoffs would
also eliminate the either-or burden borne by ''spoiler'' candidates
like Ralph Nader of the Green Party faced. In last year's
presidential election, had Nader been able to urge his supporters to
cast their second-preference vote for Al Gore, the Democrat would
probably be president, and Nader would be a hero, not a pariah, to
Preferential voting has
been used since 1918 in Australia and for many years in Ireland. In
1990, second-preference votes lifted Mary Robinson to become the
first woman president of the Republic of Ireland. She was second
among three candidates who failed to win a majority of
Vermont is among the
five states contemplating instant runoffs; the others are
Washington, New Mexico, California, and Alaska. The idea may be
worth a serious look in Massachusetts, too, because on the 2002
Democratic primary ballot, there could be four or more candidates
for each of four constitutional offices and one or two congressional
Under current state
law, the leading vote-getter in those primaries could skate to the
final election, perhaps with 30 percent of the vote or less. With a
weak Republican Party in the state, most, if not all, of the
Democratic primary victors would become odds-on favorites in the
That scenario has
played out many times here and across the country as plurality
winners were nominated by their parties or elected outright. Current
New England governors who won their first term with slim pluralities
include Connecticut Republican John Rowland (36 percent in 1994) and
Maine independent Angus King (35 percent the same
In the Bay State, there
have been many plurality winners, particularly in party primaries.
In 1998, Somerville Mayor Michael E. Capuano, with 23 percent of the
vote, won a 10-candidate Democratic primary in the 8th Congressional
District. In the lopsidedly Democratic 8th, it was tantamount to
If preferential voting
had been in effect in 1996, Philip W. Johnston would almost
certainly be the congressman from the 10th Congressional District
today, instead of chairman of the state Democratic Party. Johnston
lost by 119 votes in a three-way primary to William D. Delahunt, who
won 38 percent of the vote in a contest that went to a Florida-style
recount, complete with chads and dimples and pregnant punchcard
ballots. Newcomer Ian Bowles was out of the running with 22 percent
of the vote but ran a strong second to Johnston in the Cape Cod and
Islands region of the district. If Bowles's backers had been allowed
to express a second preference, it's a pretty safe bet most would
have chosen Johnston, thus giving him the edge.
Individuals can decide
whether it's good or bad, but it's hard to argue against the
proposition that preferential voting provides a better vehicle to
reflect public sentiment.
''I think any election
system that doesn't produce a majority winner is a disservice to the
voters,'' said George Pillsbury, policy director of Boston Vote, a
nonpartisan organization working to increase voter participation in
Boston and other urban areas.
''The current system
opens the door for a very unpopular candidate in a very crowded
field,'' he said.
Mickey Edwards, the
former eight-term Republican congressman from Oklahoma, is amazed
that Massachusetts does not employ runoffs, either of the instant or
traditional variety, meaning a second primary election with the top
two finishers facing off.
''It seems to me it's
the only legitimate way of conducting an election,'' said Edwards,
who for seven years has been John Quincy Adams lecturer in
legislative politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of
Government. ''That way the majority of voters are not cut out of the
process, represented by somebody most of them didn't want.''
Oklahoma is one of the 11 states that use traditional, not instant,
runoffs to ensure majority winners in party
preserve the winner-take-all concept but greatly refine it by
factoring in the second choice (or in larger fields, even more
choices) of voters whose favorite is a weaker candidate. And they
eliminate the more conventional runoff elections, which are
expensive and often draw skimpy turnouts.
The concept was
actually invented in Massachusetts around 1870 by professor W.R.
Ware of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to the
Washington-based Center for Voting and Democracy, an instant runoff
It could be a tough
sell today in its birthplace, however. Secretary of State William F.
Galvin, the state's chief election officer, said there are ''very
real and practical problems'' to implementing such a system
''The first problem is
you have to get a law passed'' by the Legislature, Galvin said.
''The second is you have to educate the populace about how it
Let the education
begin: Here are details on how an instant runoff might work in
If a candidate receives
more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she is nominated or elected,
and that's it. But, in a multi-candidate field, if no candidate
receives a majority, the preference voting kicks
Let's say three
candidates are running for office. On the ballot, which resembles a
State Lottery betting slip, there will be next to each name three
ovals, numbered 1, 2, and 3.
Using a special pen,
voters color in the oval numbered ''1'' next to their top choice,
the oval numbered ''2'' next to their second
Suppose candidate A
receives 39 percent of the first-preference votes (number ones),
candidate B 34 percent, and candidate C 27 percent. No one tops 50
percent, so the instant runoff begins.
Candidate C is
eliminated, and his or her second-preference votes are apportioned
to his rivals. If they split evenly, candidates A and B each receive
another 14 percent, and A beats B, 52-48 percent.
It works the same way
in larger fields. Using ''sequential elimination'' of weaker
candidates, one per round, backup votes are transferred to other
candidates until one tops 50 percent.
But what if B and C
were both conservative candidates and A was the lone liberal? In
that case, B probably would receive most of the second preferences
on C's ballots. Maybe they would break B's way in a ratio of 2 to 1.
In that case, B would win, 52-48, and an aggregated conservative
majority would prevail.
It happens all the time
in states that now hold conventional runoff elections, so-called
second primaries. For example, in Florida, Lawton Chiles became US
senator and Bob Graham governor by overcoming second-place
first-primary finishes with runoff victories.
A full-blown second
election isn't necessary anymore. Modern optical scanning technology
and computer software permit the results of large-field preferential
voting to be calculated rapidly.
City of Cambridge uses such technology for its ''proportional
representation'' elections of city councilors and school committee
members. The old manual counts took about a week. The computerized
counts, according to Teresa Neighbor, executive director of the
city's election commission, take minutes.